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22 Sep 2006
by Mike Tanier
The Michael Koenen experiment is officially over.
Koenen entered this season as the first player to be his team's primary kicker and punter since Frank Corral handled both duties for the Rams in 1981. Koenen has performed well as a punter, but a 2-of-8 early performance on field goals sealed his fate as a kicker. Morten Andersen was signed to kick the Falcons' field goals earlier in the week. Corral's historical footnote is safe.
Even in failure, the Koenen experiment was interesting. There was a brief era in pro football when K-Ps (kickers, not military potato peelers) roamed the earth. They represent one of the transitional fossils bridging the era between the days when position players kicked and the modern era of super-specialists. They were never all that common, but K-Ps were a regular part of football from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, with a few hanging on until the Me decade. The Koenen experiment gives us a great excuse to look back on the history of the double duty booter.
Once upon a time, from the birth of the game through the 1930s, there was no such thing as a full-time kicker or punter. Football was an 11-on-11 game; substitutions only occurred when a player was too injured to continue. In those days, if you had a good leg and weren't about to keel over, you might be called upon to punt, kick a field goal, or score the extra point after your own touchdown.
Strategies were different then. Teams often punted on early downs, sometimes on first down if they were pinned deep in their own territory, so it helped if one of the backs could serve as a "triple threat" runner-passer-punter. Field goals were rare, and they were short. The longest field goals of the 1933 season traveled just 40 yards; most successful tries came from 15-25 yards away (the goal posts were at the front of the end zone back then). Field goal percentages hovered in the low 40's.While most teams had a position player who was also their best kicker or punter, it wasn't unusual for seven or eight players to punt or kick in a season, and box scores from the era often show three players attempting extra points in the same game.
As the game became more sophisticated, specialization increased. By the mid-1940s, teams generally used one punter, often the quarterback, and one or two players shared field goal duties. Even in those days, it was rare for a player to both punt and place kick. It was recognized back then that different skills were required for the jobs. Field goal kicking linebackers were about as common as two-way punter-kickers throughout the 40s and early 50s.
But there were a few K-Ps. Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield may have been the best double threat kicker-punter in history. He punted for the Rams for five years while leading the league in field goals three times and percentage twice as a place kicker. He was also one of the best quarterbacks in the league and, in his first few seasons, an outstanding defensive back. Of course, he wasn't a K-P in the Koenen sense; Waterfield was a do-it-all superstar. In 1948, the Redskins took away Sammy Baugh's punting responsibilities and gave them to halfback Dick Poillon. Poillon was already the team's place kicker, but in 1949 his kicking duties increased and his running duties disappeared. Poillon was a running back in name only. He was a full-time K-P, if only for a season.
The role of the kicker evolved slowly throughout the 1950s. If a position player was also a top field goal kicker, he would often hang around the roster as a pure kicker for a season or two, as Poillon did. By the middle of the decade, players like Fred Cone of the Packers might be listed as fullbacks, but they were really kickers who happened to carry the ball 15 times per year. Free substitution became legal in the late 1940s, and coaches slowly realized its potential. If the backup quarterback was a better punter than the starter, then the backup punted.
Field goals became more frequent, and 40+ yard attempts became more common. Teams that lacked a good kicker or punter were forced to acquire them. Sam Baker started his career as a fullback who kicked and punted, but the Redskins stopped putting him in the backfield after 1957. He was a full-time K-P. The Rams acquired Paige Cothren in 1957, and they didn't bother pretending that he was some backup lineman. He was a kicker, though tight end Del Shofner was the Rams punter.
By the time the AFL era began in 1960, most teams were willing to keep a player around whose main duty was to kick field goals, even if that player still technically had another job. But many owners wanted the most bang for their buck: if the new specialist was such a good kicker, why make the tight end punt? The Golden Age of the K-P was upon us.
The 1960s were the heyday of the K-P. Football was sophisticated enough to allow for specialists, but not so sophisticated that teams were ready for two full-time special teamers. From 1960 through 1969, there were 43 kicker-punter seasons in the NFL and AFL.
A handful of K-Ps like Baker and Danny Villanueva dominate the kicker-punter lists in that decade, but many other players pulled double duty for a season or two. Players like Mike Eischeid, Allen Green, and Dale Livingston had brief careers as two-way threats. Fred Cox, the longtime kicker for the Vikings, punted for a season. Roy Gerela, the kicker for the great Steelers teams of the 1970s, also punted as a rookie, as did Mark Mosely.
The Sporting News commented on the specialist kicker phenomenon in 1965: "They are paid anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for four months' work, just for their ability in putting the ball out on the opponents' two-yard line, or booting a 45-yard field goal or getting 40-for-40 extra points." That article listed four K-Ps active in the league that year, plus several one-way specialists. It also unknowingly heralded the impending death of the K-P, noting that the Gogolak brothers were setting new field goal records in college using a soccer-style technique. The Gogolaks came from a soccer background, so they lacked the skills needed to punt (soccer players, remember, don't use their hands). Soccer-style kickers were soon setting accuracy records at the pro level, but those who tried to punt were rarely better than the average backup quarterback of the time. It became harder for the K-Ps to compete with these soccer-trained marksmen.
By the mid-1970s, there were only two kicker-punters in the NFL. Most teams kept a full-time kicker on the payroll. There were many full-time punters, but quarterbacks and other position players still punted. Even as late as 1976, quarterbacks like Danny White and Dan Pastorini also punted, as did position players like Bob Parsons and Pat McInally. All of the K-Ps either retired or started handling one chore exclusively.
Teams still turned to K-Ps in desperation if they couldn't fill both roles. The 1976 Bucs pressed punter Dave Green into service as a kicker-punter. He averaged just 39.3 yards per punt and converted a low 57 percent of his field goals after someone named Mirro Roder flunked an early-season tryout as a kicker. The 1979 Cardinals got through the year with punter Steve Little as a K-P. The Saints drafted Russell Erxleben in the first round in 1979 and clearly planned to use him as a K-P, but Erxleben bombed as a kicker. The Rams used Frank Corral as a kicker and punter for two years, then released him when they found two rookies who could do the jobs better and cheaper (check out the Football Outsiders FOX blog for more on Corral). By that time, Danny White was the only punter or kicker left in the NFL who also played a significant role at another position. Corral was the last of the dodos.
Until Koenen came along, that is.
What possessed the Falcons to turn back the clock 40 years and assign one player to two very different chores (three, if you count kickoffs)?
Koenen was the Falcons' punter as a rookie last season. He was very good, netting 42.3 yards per punt and recording 14 touchbacks on kickoffs. Todd Peterson was the team's kicker. He was 23-of-25 on field goals, but the 35-year-old's leg strength was failing him. When the Falcons needed a long field goal, like a 58-yarder that ended the first half against New England last October, they turned to Koenen.
Peterson became a free agent in the off-season. The Falcons were looking for someone cheaper, so they didn't make the veteran an offer. "Quite frankly, it saves some cap room that we can use in other spots," Jim Mora said, "But by no means do we want to sacrifice the chance to score three points for some more cap room." They signed Iowa State rookie Tony Yelk to a free agent contract and acquired former Cowboys practice squader Zac Derr. Derr got hurt before the team reached training camp, so the Falcons picked up Arena kicker Carlos Martinez to compete with Yelk. All the while, Mora considered the possibility of using Koenen in a dual role. "We are not sure if we want to place the burden of being the punter and the place kicker (on Koenen)," Mora said before the start of camp.
Other no-name kickers earned tryouts with the Falcons, but E.J. Cochrane and Seth Marler didn't distinguish themselves. Mora hired kicking coach Steve Hoffman to develop his young legs. The Falcons entered camp with Koenen, Yelk, and Miro Kesic at kicker. Koenen handled most of the kicking in the first exhibition game, nailing four field goals, including a 50-yarder. Yelk converted one extra point. Koenen kicked a 51-yarder in the next preseason game. Yelk strained his quadriceps during a kickoff. Kesic never got a serious chance. The competition was over. Yelk was relegated to the practice squad. Koenen would be the first K-P in 25 years. "There wasn't as much hand-wringing as you would think," Mora said of the decision. "And that's a credit to Michael."
The Falcons were clearly aware of the risks. An injury to Koenen would cripple their entire kicking game; even with Yelk on the practice squad, the Falcons risked losing a game if Koenen got hurt early. Mora and his staff also knew there was the risk of a psychological collapse, but Koenen seemed emotionally prepared for both roles. "You just do what you have to do," he said after a wobbly effort in the opener. "You just say, 'all right,' then you go out and swing your leg."
But Koenen clearly wasn't ready for both jobs. Mora stood by his decision to experiment with Koenen, and he suggested that Koenen might get another chance to be a full-time kicker. Koenen's missed field goals didn't hurt the 2-0 Falcons, and he'll be called upon again this season when the Falcons attempt a 50-yard field goal. In the end, Mora made good on his promise to choose points over cap space. With the Falcons looking like contenders, he stopped messing around and brought in Andersen. Koenen can now concentrate on what he does best: punting and booming kickoffs.
We close this week with the five greatest K-Ps in pro football history, not counting all-purpose Hall of Famers like Waterfield. Koenen isn't likely to make this list at this point, but you never know: all he has to do is bounce back and have two or three good seasons, and he can join these not-quite immortals.
5) Dennis Partee: Partee, an 11th round draft pick by the Chargers in 1968, punted and kicked for them from 1968 through 1972. He punted until 1975 and was used as an extra point specialist in 1973 and 1974 when the team broke in Ray Wersching.
Partee scored 106 points in 1968 and led the league in gross average in 1969. He is best known for a) a game-winning 45-yard field goal against the Cardinals on Monday Night Football in 1971, and b) a lengthy antitrust lawsuit against the Chargers involving the World Football League's efforts to lure him away from the NFL.
4) Danny Villanueva: A standout for the New Mexico State team that won the 1959 Sun Bowl, Villanueva was a K-P for the Rams from 1961-64 and for the Cowboys from 1965 through 1967. He still holds the Rams' club records for punting in a single season and in a career. As a kicker, he scored 107 points for the 1966 Cowboys to finish second in the league in scoring.
After retiring in 1967, Villanueva became a very successful Spanish-language broadcaster and was one of the founders of Univision and Telemundo.
3) Sam Baker: Baker left the University of Oregon as the school's all-time rushing leader, but weight problems and a taste for the nightlife nearly ended his NFL career after one season. He spent two seasons in Canada, then tried to make the Redskins as a fullback in 1956. The Redskins were loaded in the backfield, so Baker spent extra time practicing his placekicking. After kicking four field goals in a preseason game, Baker earned a new role. When he set a Redskins record with a 49-yard field goal, The Sporting News called him "the National Football League's latest place-kicking sensation."
Baker handled K-P duty for the Redskins, Browns, Cowboys and Eagles from 1956 through 1968 and kicked for the Eagles in 1969. He led the league in punt average in 1958, in field goal percentage in 1966, and in field goals in 1956.
2) Don Chandler: Chandler was the Giants punter from 1956 through 1961, when Pat Summerall was their kicker. He led the league in gross average in 1957. When Summerall retired, Chandler became a PK and excelled, scoring over 100 points for the Giants in 1962 and 1963, leading the league in field goal percentage in 1962, and averaging 44.9 yards per punt in 1963.
After the 1964 season, Chandler asked the Giants if he could be a part-time football player; he wanted to devote more attention to his insurance business. The Giants balked at this request and traded him to Green Bay, where he kicked for three more years and punted for two more. The Giants anointed rookie quarterback Bob Timberlake as their new field goal kicker. He would go on to one of the worst kicking seasons in pro football history (which we wrote about this summer).
1) Don Cockroft: The heir to Lou Groza in Cleveland, Brown was the last long-term K-P in NFL history, as opposed to guys like Corral who took over the job for a year or two. Cockroft was the Browns' kicker and punter from 1968 through 1976, then hung on as a kicker until 1980. He earned All Pro notice as a punter when he averaged 43.2 yards per attempt in 1972 and led the league in field goal percentage three times.
Cockroft is most famous in Cleveland as the kicker who missed an extra point and two field goals in the Browns' 14-12 playoff loss to the Raiders in 1980. Cockroft was nursing numerous injuries and was having a hard time kicking on one of the coldest days in history, but he had a chance to redeem himself when the Browns drove into Raiders territory. As the clock wound down, Cockroft told quarterback Brian Sipe to get the ball to the right hashmark. Coach Sam Rutigliano called a play called "Red Right 88" and told Sipe (according to Cockroft in a magazine interview): "if no one is open, throw the ball into Lake Erie." Instead, Sipe tried to thread a pass to Ozzie Newsome in the end zone which the Raiders intercepted. It was the last game of Cockroft's career.
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